Geoffrey Wheatcroft

The end of the Etonians

Geoffrey Wheatcroft says the long slow decline of the Tory party can be partly attributed to a devastating article 40 years ago

Forty years ago today, The Spectator published perhaps the most important and influential article ever to appear in its pages. That is a high standard. R.W. Seton-Watson’s reports before 1914 condemning ethnic oppression may well have led indirectly to the postwar dismemberment of Hungary, for better or worse. And in a leader, headed ‘On the side of liberty’, to mark this magazine’s hemiocentenary in 1978, the Times was flattering enough to say that The Spectator was then in the vanguard of a new libertarian spirit, which would (in the event) help Margaret Thatcher to her victory the following year. But Mrs Thatcher might never have become party leader in the first place had it not been for that long essay innocuously entitled ‘The Conservative Leadership’, which appeared on 17 January 1964.

Until the previous October Harold Macmillan’s Cabinet had included Iain Macleod, a dashing, very clever Tory radical, a successful minister disliked by the Right of the party for his role in decolonisation, one of the finest parliamentary debaters, and the best conference speaker, of his generation. But he had declined to serve under Lord Home when Home had suddenly, not to say astonishingly, succeeded Macmillan (and become Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the process by renouncing his peerage). As something more than consolation prize, Macleod’s friend Ian Gilmour, the owner of The Spectator, made him editor, and he put the magazine to good effect.

After October there had been, as Macleod drily said, an unspoken agreement that the less said about those events the better, but this silence was noisily broken by Randolph Churchill with a ‘quickie’ book, The Fight for the Tory Leadership. Under the guise of a book review, itself brutally offensive and dismissive, Macleod now told the true story of how Home’s succession had been engineered. He told it with brilliant, angry eloquence, which sent shudders through the party, brought him much obloquy, and has had profound consequences to this day.

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